Frank Nelson in the Forecastle. Or, The Sportman's Club Among the Whalers
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"And he's swimming this way, sir," said another voice, "and making signals of distress."
"Have the cutter called away, Mr. Baldwin," said Uncle Dick, to his first mate, "and send a crew out to pick him up."
The boys waited to hear no more. They crowded up the companion ladder with such haste that they ran some risk of sticking fast in the narrow passageway, and reached the deck just as the crew of the cutter were tumbling into their boat which lay along side moored to a swinging boom, man-of-war fashion.
"Where is Mr. Parker?" said Uncle Dick, looking around for his second officer.
"O, let me go in charge of the boat, Uncle," exclaimed Eugene, snatching Fred's hat from his head, for he had left his own in the cabin.
"Away you go, then," said the old sailor. "Don't let him sink before you reach him."
"They're sending out a boat from the whaler, sir," said the foremast hand, who was at work in the forward rigging, and who had been the first to discover the man in the water.
"Does he appear to be all right?"
"O, yes, sir. He swims like a duck, but he's waving his hand to us."
"Hold on a minute, Eugene."
Uncle Dick sprang upon the rail and supporting himself by the shrouds looked towards the man, and then toward the boat that was coming out to pick him up, while the boys, all except Eugene, who stood ready to take his place in the cutter at a moment's warning, swarmed up the rigging and looked on with no little interest. They saw at once that the man had no trouble in keeping afloat, for he swam over the waves as buoyantly as a cork. They saw, too, that he did not want to be overtaken by the whaler's boat, if he could help it, for he looked back at her occasionally to see if she was gaining on him, and then redoubled his efforts to reach the schooner.
"He is trying to desert," said Uncle Dick, "and I think we had better have nothing to do with him."
"Quartermaster, pass up that spy-glass," said Frank.
The petty officer handed the instrument to Featherweight, who happened to be lowest in the shrouds, and he passed it to George Le Dell, who handed it up to Frank. The latter mounted to the crosstrees and levelled the glass at the swimmer. He held it to his eye for a few minutes, and then passing it back to George, said:
"That man has either met with a severe accident, or been roughly handled. His face is bleeding."
"Help! help!" cried a faint voice.
"Go and pick him up," said Uncle Dick.
"Shove off," commanded Eugene, before he was fairly seated in the stern-sheets of the cutter. "Remember, men, that you are racing with a whale-boat, and that you don't want to be beaten."
The cutter swung around with her bow toward the swimmer, and propelled by eight strong oarsmen, who seemed to lift her fairly out of the water at every stroke, flew over the waves like a duck. A boat race was something in which Eugene took especial delight, but the one that came off that morning between the cutter and the whale-boat was not as exciting or as closely contested as he had hoped it would be.In fact it was no race at all; for when the officer, whoever he was, who had charge of the deck of the whaler, saw that the cutter was likely to reach the swimmer first, he hailed his boat, which turned around and went back.
"In bow," commanded the coxswain of the cutter, who was sitting just behind Eugene.
The two sailors who were seated in the bow raised their oars from the water, placed them on the thwarts between them, and then one stood up with the boat-hook in his hand, while the other threw himself flat on his face and extended his arm out over the water.
"Way enough! Toss, and stand by," said the coxswain.
The other oars were all thrown up into the air at the same moment, laid upon the thwarts, and every man leaned over the side to be ready to seize the swimmer as the cutter moved past him. She retained steerage-way enough to carry her within a few feet of him, and then the coxswain, with one movement of the tiller, turned the bow aside, and the boat-hook was thrust out within reach of his hands. It was a matter of some difficulty to haul the rescued man aboard, for he was too nearly exhausted to help himself, and his clothing, being thoroughly saturated with water, was as heavy as so much lead. Besides, his forehead was badly cut and bruised, and no doubt he was suffering from the hurt.
"Did you fall overboard?" asked Eugene, after the man had been pulled into the boat and had taken his seat in the bow.
"No, sir; I jumped overboard on purpose."
"You hit your head against something, didn't you?"
"The cap'n hit it for me, sir. It was a belaying pin that made that mark."
Eugene looked wonderingly at the coxswain, who nodded his head, as if to say that he didn't doubt it at all.
"Why, the officers aboard our vessel don't find it necessary to do such things," said Eugene.
"But all vessels ain't like the Stranger, sir, nor are all shipmasters like Cap'n Gaylord," said the coxswain. "Do you s'pose there's a sailorman aboard of us that would do what this chap has done – try to desert? No, sir, you couldn't kick 'em off if you wanted to. When we get back to Bellville we'll have every man we brought away with us, unless some of 'em are in Davy's locker."
The cutter was soon alongside the schooner, and the rescued man, by dint of hauling from above and pushing from below, was got upon the deck. He was a pitiable object when one came to look at him, and Uncle Dick's first order was: "Take him below, some of you, and give him something fit to put on. Be in a hurry about it."
The sailors were only too glad to obey. They led the dripping man into the forecastle, from which he emerged a few minutes later with a clean face, a suit of dry clothes, and a handkerchief bound about his forehead. In his appearance, which was very much improved, he would have compared favorably with any of the seamen on board the Stranger, and they were the very best that Uncle Dick could find in the port of New Orleans. He had evidently had plenty of time to tell at least a portion of his story, for the faces of the sailors were as black as so many thunder clouds.
The rescued man at once made his way aft, accompanied by the boatswain's mate, who, presuming for this once upon his captain's good-nature, and his own position as ranking petty officer on board the Stranger, took the liberty to go where he knew he had no right except he was in performance of his duties. The men saluted, removed their caps and waited for Uncle Dick to speak to them.
"Well, Lucas, what do you want here?" asked the old sailor.
"I ax your pardon, cap'n, for coming on the quarter-deck at this time without an invite," replied the boatswain's mate, "but I just wanted to say to you, sir, that this man is black and blue from his head to his feet, so he is."
"How did he get that way?" asked Uncle Dick, while the boys ranged themselves behind him so that they could hear all that passed, "and why is he trying to desert?"
The mate stepped back and moved his hand toward the rescued man, as if to say that he would tell his own story, and the latter said:
"I don't want to desert my ship, cap'n. I am an able seaman, know my duty and am ready to do it, if I can only have plenty to eat and am allowed a wink of sleep now and then. I am trying to get ashore for protection ag'in' them tyrants aboard the Tycoon, and I hope you won't send me back to them, sir."
"Go on," said Uncle Dick. "What has happened aboard that ship?"
"She is nearly two years out of Nantucket, on a whaling course, sir," said the man, "and there isn't a foremast hand aboard of her that she brought out with her. They've all deserted. She has to get a new crew at every port, and when she can't get 'em honest, she kidnaps 'em, sir. I shipped aboard of her, along with a lot of others, at Callao. We've been out only four months, and two of the men jumped overboard rather than stand the hard treatment they received. On the first day out the officers began on us and never let up. They kept us at work till we were ready to drop, brought us out of bed at night and made us walk the deck, and if we fell asleep as we walked, they knocked us down with a handspike or belaying-pin. They starved us almost to death, and then, because my boat's crew were too weak to save a whale we made fast to, they put us all in irons and pounded us with ropes' ends till we were insensible."
This was only the introduction to the long story the man had to tell, and to which his auditors listened with breathless interest. According to his account, the Tycoon was a horrible place, and the cruelties that were practised by the officers upon the defenceless seamen, were shocking. The man certainly bore unmistakable evidence of brutal treatment, and added weight to his story by declaring that he was not only willing but anxious to meet his persecutors in a court of justice. Everybody who listened to him was indignant.
"The men on board that vessel have a remedy in their own hands – two of them, if they only knew it," said Frank. "Why didn't they demand an interview with the American consul at the first port at which they touched?"
"It wouldn't have done no good, sir," said the sailor. "The cap'n wouldn't never let 'em see him, sir."
"He couldn't help himself," returned Frank. "The law compels him to allow his men to go ashore at every port at which the ship may touch to lay their complaints, if they have any, before our representative; or, if there is any good reason why the men cannot go ashore, the captain must bring the consul aboard to see them, if they demand it."
If there was anything in which Frank was particularly well posted, it was the law governing the duties of consuls, as some of our representatives in foreign countries are called. The attorney with whom he had been studying in Lawrence, had political aspirations, and had at one time expected to be appointed consul for some port in the Mediterranean. If he had succeeded in his object Frank would have gone with him as assistant and clerk. He did not wish to accept any situation with whose duties and responsibilities he was not familiar, and in order to fit himself for it, he had obtained a copy of the Consular Regulations, which he had thoroughly mastered. It is a part of the consul's duty to care for destitute, discharged and deserting seamen, to stand between foremast hands and tyrannical officers, to protect officers from and punish mutinous sailors, and Frank knew the law bearing upon every case that could possibly arise.
"The consul is obliged to listen to any and all complaints," continued Frank. "He measures them by the law bearing upon them, and he can discharge the crew on complaint of the officers, or he can discharge the officers themselves on a well-founded complaint from the crew."
The sailors opened their eyes and looked at one another. They had never dreamed that they had so many rights, or that there was a law enacted on purpose to protect them.
Just then the whale-boat came in sight again, rounding the stern of the Tycoon. She turned her bow toward the Stranger, and the quartermaster, after looking at her through his spy-glass, said there was a man in the stern-sheets dressed in gray. "That's the cap'n," exclaimed the deserter, in great alarm. "You won't let him take me back, sir?" he added, in a pleading voice.
"I can't prevent your lawful captain from taking you wherever he may find you," answered Uncle Dick; "but hold on, now, till I get through," he added, as the man began to back toward the rail as if he were about to take to the water again. "I'll give you a chance to save yourself. Call away the cutter, Mr. Baldwin, and send this man ashore."
"Thank you, cap'n, thank you," said the sailor gratefully, and with tears in his eyes. "A prosperous and pleasant voyage to you and your mates, sir. What shall I do when I get ashore, sir?" he continued, looking at Frank.
"Go to the nearest justice and take out a warrant against those officers for assault and battery," was the reply.
The boatswain's mate and the rescued man looked as if they did not quite understand. "You must know, sir," said the latter, doubtfully, "that all this beating and pounding was done on the high seas."
"Well, what of it? When one man, without any provocation, handles another as roughly as you have been handled, he is answerable to the law, no matter whether the offence was committed on the high seas or on the land."
"Come now, off you go, my man," said Uncle Dick. "The cutter is ready, and you've no time to lose. Yes, go with him and take charge of the boat, Lucas," he added, anticipating the request that the old boatswain's mate was about to make.
"And whatever you do, don't let those blubber-hunters catch you," said Eugene, in a low voice. He wanted to say it aloud, so that the cutter's crew could hear it; but knowing that Uncle Dick did not allow any interference with his men, he checked himself just in time.
The cutter's crew were all in their places, and there was a determined look on each man's face which said as plainly as words that the "blubber-hunters," even if they succeeded in overhauling them – which was not at all unlikely, seeing that the whale-boat was built for speed, and was pulled by a crew who were kept in excellent training by almost daily practice at the oars – the deserter should never be taken from them. Uncle Dick seemed to read the thoughts that were passing through their minds, and as he looked at the sturdy fellows, who had thrown off their caps and rolled up their sleeves in preparation for a long, hard pull, he remarked to Frank that he would not care to be in that whale-boat if she succeeded in coming up with the cutter.